It’s true: If you’re born in Eden, you don’t know you’re blessed. My childhood was picture perfect and I thought the world simply ran like that. I thought that everyone’s mother was beautiful and caring and everyone’s father was handsome and hardworking. My younger brother, Kleat, and I were truly blessed. We had a father who never shunned one iota of his responsibility to provide for and lead his family, and we had a mother who stayed at home and nurtured us with the conscious and deliberate agenda to raise two strong, caring, and loving sons. Looking back I can’t think of one thing we ever wanted for or that I’d change. Together, my parents provided a home and family right out of a 60’s sit-com, Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver. We were a family right out of Mayberry, but even better, we had air conditioning!
My father, Rod Stephen, was born in Eastland, Texas, and grew up ‘round about the depression. He volunteered for the Marines and completed his commitment. By the time my brother and I were born, Dad was a coach for the Longview Lobos High School. My mother, Margaret Rita Turk (Rita), was raised in El Paso when she wasn’t on the Indian reservation in New Mexico. Her grandmother (my great grandmother) was full blooded Mescalero Apache. We could all be stalking deer on the great hunting lands, but Great Grandma told the white man to stick their papers where the sun don’t shine…and who could blame her? Mom would achieve education on her own but there is no doubt that her very special heart and soul was an extra special gift from God. In Okinawa, Rod accidentally on purpose fell in the pool next to Rita, and a few years later my brother and I were walking the planet.
My brother Kleat and I were born in Longview, Texas, and we had a very close relationship. We climbed trees, built forts, hunted and fished, played all kinds of games, and excelled in athletics to- gether. Later, I’d wonder, did I ever have a girlfriend he didn’t kiss? Generally speaking, we were two peas in a pod.
One time when we were in elementary school, I remember Kleat coming home all beat up. I asked him who did it and he told me that one of the twins down the street did it, but he didn’t know which one it was. The twins were my age and bigger than most. I headed out the door and found the identicals laughing about the event on the street corner. When I asked which one of them beat up my brother, they refused to tell me. I couldn’t tell them apart either. Heck, no one could tell them apart. So I beat them both up! After that I figured I needed to teach Kleat how to fight. I’m not so sure that was a good move. As brothers do, I’d have to fight him more than most. But we always got past it, as brothers do.
My family likes to hunt. My brother and I have hunted since we were very young. Of course, one of the primary concerns in the early years was that we not get hurt or hurt anyone else with our firearms. My father taught us verbally everything he knew how to about gun safety. He was constantly watching how we handled our guns, where the barrel was inadvertently pointed, how we loaded and unloaded our guns, whether the safety was on or off—always, always, always counseling us.
I’m the oldest and of course the first to start shooting. Carrying a full-fledged firearm was new for me. The responsibility of educating a young son about firearms and safety was new for Dad. He wasn’t sure if I was getting it. Yes, I was hearing him, but did I really under- stand the importance and the huge responsibility of handling a rifle? He wasn’t sure, and he couldn’t rest until he knew without a doubt that I understood the full weight of the situation.
One day he asked me if I wanted to go to the shooting range. He said he wanted me to help him sight in his old 30-30 rifle. I was proud that he fancied me as a good shot, so of course, I said, “Yes.” We hopped into the truck and off we went.
When we got to the range we set everything out on one of the shooting tables. Dad told me to take the rifle out of the case. I knew what he was waiting for. He was waiting for me to check immediately to see if the rifle was loaded or empty. It was the first rule of guns. “Never touch a gun without checking to see if it is loaded.” You touch it, you check it. The last thing I ever wanted to ask my father was, “Is this gun loaded?” That question would get you lit up. You don’t ask—YOU CHECK THE WEAPON YOURSELF! Dad watched me check the rifle’s chamber for shells. I cocked the magazine open and gazed at the insides. He leaned in to look at the same time. He saw it was unloaded, same as I did, but still he asked me, “Is it safe?”
I answered, “Yes Sir.” He made his point with his words and with an intent look directly into my eyes.
After we grabbed some sandbags, he instructed me to take a seat at the table. We made a few adjustments with bags while I was in the shooting position. Dad asked, “How’s it feel?”
“Pretty good,” I said. I had the butt of the rifle pulled in tight to my shoulder with my cheek down on the stock. With one eye shut, I could see that the barrel set nicely in line with the target one hundred yards ahead of us. I’d never shot his gun before. It was one of those sacred moments. Dad was about to let me shoot his 30-30 rifle.
As a marksman, I’d already achieved excellence with my Cross- man “pump” BB gun. Carrying a gun or shooting wasn’t new to me, but the big rifle was a bit intimidating.
dad: Think you can put one in the bull’s eye from here son?
me: I reckon I can.
dad: This trigger has a long draw on it. It takes some getting use to. I’m not a real fan of dry firing a gun, but why don’t you try it once or twice and get a feel for it.
I closed the magazine and got down on the target. I took a deep breath and pulled the trigger slow at first but, then, I yanked it. “CLICK.” The gun dry fired. I knew, without a doubt, I would’ve missed if this had been the real thing.
dad: You jerked it didn’t you?
me: Yes Sir, I sure did. That trigger does take a long time to go off.
dad: Try it again. This time you’ll know more what to expect.
I cocked the empty gun again and started to bear down on the target.
dad: Take your breath and pull so slow you don’t even know when it’s going to go off.
CLICK. The hammer flew forward striking to the firing pin. dad: That was perfect! Cool as a cumber! You’d have leveled that deer.
me: Yes Sir, I would’ve that time but sure is a long pull.
dad: Awe, you’ll get used to it in a few more times. Hey, let’s take a break and go get us a cold soda-pop. I saw a machine
around front. Here’s some change. Go get us both one will you?
I disappeared around the front of the little house/office. When I got back, we sipped our sodas and talked about the upcoming deer season. It was starting to get hot.
dad: Hey, what do you say we try this one more time before we start using expensive ammo.
me: OK, but I hate to shoot your gun dry like that. Sure it’s alright?
dad: Yea, it’ll be alright. I got it ready for you too. One more time won’t hurt it.
I got into position while Dad was coaching me to take my time. “Nice and easy…take a breath and then…nice and slow…squeeze the trigger.”
BANG! The gun went off! It roared like all the thunder I have ever heard in my life, all happening at once! The adrenaline shot through my body, fear – shock – panic. I jumped up off the gun and looked at my father with eyes that must have been big as saucers…more fear and panic, and then embarrassment. My heart had all but leapt out of my chest. My ears were ringing. I was stone cold, petrified. And stunned! My father grabbed me with one hand and the rifle with the other. Holding the rifle way away from his body with one arm, he clinched the front of my shirt at the collar and pulled me to him with his other arm. His face was within inches of mine. He had big tears in his eyes and he gritted his teeth. A single drop was forced from the corner when he closed his eyes and said, “Son, the gun is always loaded. No matter what you think, no matter what anyone tells you, no matter what you might suspect, the gun is always loaded, son. The last three words were barley audible but whispered directly into my ear I heard them, “It’s always – loaded!”
My father had slipped a shell into the rifle when I went for the sodas. He did it to make an impression on me he feared his words were not making. I just thought I understood that my rifle could go off and kill somebody. I got a new understanding that day. All the coaching, all the fireside chats at camp, all the talking in the world would not, could not, accomplish what my Dad did with one very carefully placed 30-30 shell that day.
A few days later, I asked him why he’d gotten choked up that day on the rifle range when the gun went off. He welled up somewhat again, “Because I love you. I love you so much and I don’t want the potential of that gun to ruin your life. If your gun ever kills you or anyone else I will never forgive myself. I want you to enjoy the out- doors, to experience the wilderness and the thrill and cunning of the hunt. But it comes with a risk. That gun is dangerous. It’ll kill you dead as a door nail in a heartbeat. It can steal all of those good times away in the flash of a muzzle.”
Dad continued, “You see, when I was a kid, my gun went off. Un- fortunately it was not orchestrated like yours was. I could have killed someone—anyone—who would have been standing in the path of my bullet. I got lucky and no one got hurt, but I have never forgot- ten that moment when my gun went off unexpectedly. It made an impression that has lasted all my life. I think, no, I know, it takes an
unexpected discharge before that gun will ever get all the respect you can give it. When it happens you’re almost sick with the realization of what could have happened. I wanted you to get that experience without having to take the chance I had to take to get it. I was over- come because I could tell by the look on your face when that gun went off that you had gotten that experience. I was relieved.”
As a student of life, I’ve learned almost everything meaningful in this fashion. It has to happen to me in real time for me to get the les- son once and for all. Yes, for many of us, learning is in the living.
My high school days were picture perfect; all district this, most popular that, played drums in the local rock-n-roll band, and had a dang pretty girl friend. I drove a 1979 midnight blue Trans AM complete with T-Tops and an oyster white, leather interior, straight off the show room floor (thanks Mom and Dad!). I thought I was the coolest thing in town, but it was really just a very cool time. I’ll never be able to thank my parents enough for all they gave me and did for me. It simply cannot be done.
I had average grades in school and excelled in football. I’ve of- ten wondered what I’d be like today if it hadn’t been for athletics in school. It’s been said that athletics can build a strong inner fortitude. I’m certain that it did in my case. At 125 pounds, I was probably one of the smallest 4A starters in Texas. I started my first varsity football game as a sophomore at the running back position in 1976. At the time, in 4A high school, that was a big deal. I really had no business starting on a 4A high school team but, lucky for me, our team didn’t have anyone better. I was never the fastest man on the field, but with a lot of help I managed to gain my fair share of yards. The main thing I had going for me was that my mind was right. It was not a conscious decision to prevail over my lack of size. Simply put, I was never told that I couldn’t, so I did. After the graduation ceremony, we all went to the last “Class of ‘79 Keg Party.” When I woke up the next morning the bleachers were empty.
It was only natural for me to try to find a new stadium. I spent the next year working out and training. When I walked on my first college football field in San Angelo, Texas, five years after my high school debut, I weighed a meager 165 pounds soaking wet. The front line was averaging over 300 pounds per man.
During some testing for quickness and speed, I found myself paired up beside a lineman to run the forty-yard dash. He weighed in at about 325 pounds. I thought to myself, “This guy isn’t going to push me to my best time.” Well, that was wrong. I barely managed to outrun the big man by 1/100th of a second. I wasn’t that slow. The big man was just that fast! I watched as the other running backs got tested. The Astroturf all but rolled up behind the speed demons as they crossed the finish line. With every official time they recorded, my heart sank a little further. There was no way I could compete at such levels. In all my eighteen years, quitting football had never been an option, not even a remote thought, but the handwriting was on the wall. I was going to get cut from a football team.
My dreams of football were dashed. It was a very confusing time, and I lingered for awhile through 1980 and 1981. Eventually, I did what any red-blooded American boy would do. I packed up my Trans AM, took the t-tops off, cranked up Boston on the cassette stereo, and headed for California. Why, you might ask? Well, red-blooded American boys don’t need a reason to go to California. They just go.